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CEO (@BENGMN) is the CEO of Diff, a full-service agency that designs and builds e-commerce solutions for major retailers.

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Basketball courts. Tube slides. Matching 401ks and university tuition for employees’ kids. The gamut of lavish — not to mention pricey — benefits on offer by many high-profile companies can be intimidating for small organizations competing for top talent with tight margins. But Google-style perks don’t have to come standard; in fact, increasingly, their value is being called into question. At their core, perks aren’t actually about signalling to the outside world how hip your company is — they’re about showing the people inside your organization that they are valued and respected.

When I started Diff, I couldn’t afford anything near those Silicon Valley-style indulgences. But I made it a priority to identify affordable benefits that were meaningful for my team. Why? The people you have working for you now are the most valuable asset you’ve got – especially for us as an e-commerce development agency that relies on human passion to grow and thrive. Keeping your team – and keeping them happy – can save you considerable grief and money by reducing turnover and boosting engagement. Studies estimate that it can cost up to nine months’ salary to replace an employee, while highly engaged employees are over 20-per-cent more productive.

The good news is that nap rooms and climbing walls aren’t necessary to move the needle on employee satisfaction. When it comes to offering perks that really count – like flexible hours or an engaging culture – small companies often have an edge. Here are four ways even the smallest startups can reward their employees without breaking the bank.

Give the gift of time (and control over it)

We started out as just four guys on a couch, but even when Diff had no room in the budget for things such as cash bonuses, we knew we could offer our team something much more valuable: time. Right from the get-go, we gave employees control of their own schedule – and we still do it today.

Rather than having set start and finish times, we operate on core hours during which team members are expected to overlap at least briefly each day. People can work from home whenever they want and take time off when needed, just as long as they meet their project goals and expectations. This approach costs us nothing, but it’s one of our most valued perks, which is no surprise since worker happiness is highly correlated to freedom and autonomy at work. (A third of workers would even choose flexible hours over a pay raise if given the option.) The payoff is in an extremely engaged work force that sticks around – our retention rate is over 90 per cent.

Find the best office you can get, not the biggest

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For what we pay for our office in Montreal’s Atwater market, we could’ve had a place four times the size in the suburbs. But don’t be fooled by this false value proposition. A bigger, or cheaper, space in an office park might seem like more bang for your buck – until you factor in the human toll in actually getting, and working, there.

Studies show location is a key factor when people decide where to work – and the odds are high that they’ll leave within a year if a commute is too long. Long commutes have also been shown to lower life satisfaction, sap creativity and morale, and lead to severe health problems such as depression and heart disease – which can cost you more in the long run, especially if you cover stress or health leave.

It’s no mistake that we picked a location just a quick drive or subway trip from downtown, and right on the bike lane. In addition to easy access, our employees can also escape from the office to grab lunch at a good restaurant or browse local shops. We may not have big offices, but we’ve found that an open office plan and working in a tighter space has its own benefits – in terms of communication, creativity and camaraderie, as long as you don’t overlook the creature comforts.

Pay attention to design and details

What’s inside of your office is just as important as the outside. Interior decor might seem like an unnecessary splurge, especially when you’re starting out, but it makes a huge difference to your team’s experience at work. Elements such as natural light, ergonomic workstations and comfortable spaces where people can congregate do much more for morale than ping pong tables or a stocked beer fridge.

And it’s important to be equitable in how you outfit the office: the best, most comfortable spaces should be common areas, not cordoned off as the CEO’s office. When you’re able to afford improvements, choose ones that benefit everyone, such as our investment in standing desks for our whole team. Even something as basic as a kitchen stocked with coffee, tea and healthy snacks makes people feel more human and demonstrates that you care for your team’s health and comfort. So don’t scrimp on the coffee.

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Bring in an expert life coach (it’s cheaper than you think)

It might sound expensive or fluffy. But let me assure you, bringing in an expert career coach is neither of those things – and it’s transformed our team.

We regularly have professionals in to help employees with personal and interpersonal problems and assist them in reaching their goals, at work and beyond. Offering this resource shows that we recognize our people are three-dimensional human beings, complete with aspirations and challenges – and that we want to help them develop and grow. We also host yoga classes a few times a week to bring the office together to destress and combat computer hunch.

Sourcing an expert at an hourly rate – as opposed to having someone on staff to offer these services – is surprisingly inexpensive. For instance, our yoga teacher charges $100 a class, which is a deal when you consider how she fosters a culture of wellness and community in one fell swoop.

Employee assistance apps or health stipends can be helpful in a pinch, but ultimately, in-person experiences are a more effective route to create a genuine culture of caring.

Now that our company is bigger, we’re able to afford some bigger-ticket splurges: we throw a big birthday bash every month, give cool presents at the holiday party (like Bose headphones), and occasionally top up tech budgets for each team (one recently bought a full VR setup). But these are just surface-level treats. At their core, the best perks recognize and reward the humanity of the people you work with. Doing that requires nothing more than a personal touch – and it costs nothing at all.

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Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

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